Tokyo: ‘The Creator’ Producer Talks Japan Opportunity, Making Blockbusters with Mid-Sized Budgets

Nicholas Simon is busier than ever. The Thailand-based American producer has had a very productive 2023 thus far with all the various projects he’s been involved in via his production services company Indochina Productions making their mark. Ben Wheatley’s Meg 2: The Trench did solid business at the global box office, Gareth Edwards’ The Creator became a hot topic in the industry due to its frugal budget and stunning use of real-life locations and VFX and Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth has wowed the crowds as the first film specifically made for the new $2.3 billion Sphere in Las Vegas.

After a tough few years for Asian film and TV production due to COVID, Simon sees the industry ramping back up in the region, attracted by proactive government incentives in places like Thailand and Japan, but also continued spending by the likes of Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime Video.

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To that end, Simon has leaned into Japan-based production. “I have my production service company, that’s Indochina Productions. And then I have a separate company called Studio Muso, and we’ll be announcing shortly [an adaptation of] a manga property that we’re going to be co-producing with a Hollywood studio.”

Before the Tokyo Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Simon over Zoom about his time working on The Creator and Gareth Edwards’ innovative approach to filmmaking. He also talks at length about the knotty problem of China co-productions and explains why he is so bullish on Japan as a new hub for international productions.

Let’s start with The Creator. How did you get involved with the project?

I have been working closely with New Regency for a long time. And so my name was in the mix there. But the real reason, I did a movie called Kong Skull Island with Jordan Vogt-Roberts. And Jordan and Gareth are really good friends. Vietnam really changed [Jordan’s] life in a positive way, both with Kong Skull Island, and the country became like a creative zeitgeist for him. After we wrapped, he became a Vietnam tourism ambassador and took Gareth around to some of the beautiful locations where we shot Kong Skull Island.

Kong was influenced by Apocalypse Now and there are real elements of that in The Creator too, as Gareth was inspired by Vietnam [as well.] It’s wild working with someone like Gareth because you sort of hear the pitch, and you’re like, ‘Okay, yeah.’ [Laughs]. But Gareth did a teaser for New Regency, and we all just bought into his vision. And I have to say, the first time I saw this completed movie was at the Thailand premiere, and it was two hours inside the head of Gareth Edwards.

There’s been a lot of talk about The Creator because the film looks so expensive but isn’t relative to other recent Hollywood movies. On your side, the location aspect, how were you able to keep to this remarkably tight budget?

So, we did 16 weeks in Thailand and four weeks in and around [the region]. We oversaw the shoots in Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal and Japan. And we really had wanted to go to Vietnam too, but because of COVID we weren’t able to. In terms of budget, I guess New Regency is called a mini-major and I think that part of it has to do with that. But so much of it has to do with Gareth understanding visual effects and understanding also the capacity of the camera and knowing what he wanted. His choice of using the [Sony FX3 camera], allowed the whole group to be a lot more nimble in terms of grip and electric. Also, he’s someone who understands visual effects, so he designed the shots for VFX himself.

If you see the locations, what I find just incredible is that it wasn’t that he just shot in one location and then put VFX in. He actually layered multiple locations where we shot. When the big invasion scene happens, with the shots you have of the U.S. Army tractors down at the bridge, that’s a mix. That’s probably easily half a dozen different locations. [Gareth] was able to create a whole world of his own, as opposed to just shooting one location and then dropping the FX in.

The Creator
A scene still from The Creator.

There’s a perception now that shooting on location is very expensive, especially with these big project productions that are nearing $300 million. Is that perception true?

I mean, it depends. Shooting on The Volume stage, depending on the assets that you have to build can be incredibly expensive. Shooting on location doesn’t inherently have to be expensive. [On The Creator], we had a lot of people, it was during COVID, so our transportation department was limited to the number of people you could have in certain places. But we still shot in 16 or 17 provinces. You can see from the crew list, there are hundreds of people. But I have worked on the larger franchises, and on those films it would have been easily double the crew.

That [franchise machine] is not nimble. I think that comes from the director, but then also the studio, and it is just the apparatus that they all need for a comfort level. I think that on some of [Gareth’s] previous films, [he’s talked about] shooting in this beautiful location and concentrating, and he’ll turn around and there were 10 times as many people at the back of him as in front of the camera. And I think he wanted to get away from that [with The Creator]. He wanted to change the dynamics and put the focus and the money in front of the camera rather than behind it.

The other recent film you’ve done which has performed really well, is The Meg 2. That was a China co-production. Is that still something that Hollywood’s keen on?

I wish that there were more [China co-productions]. The Meg franchise is a success story of how Chinese co-productions can be done right. I think that the political climate is dictating a lot of the business aspects.

The other thing with The Meg 2, is that it wasn’t such an expensive movie to do. I think the published budget is around $120 million. It didn’t go north of $150 million or over $200 million, which so easily can happen on these projects. We shot about a third of it. The other two-thirds were shot in the U.K. So there’s also some soft money both in Thailand and the U.K. that was captured. But it was a big event, a summer popcorn movie and there aren’t enough of those anymore.

What specifically about the political climate is making things difficult for China co-productions?

What’s interesting is we have actually been contacted by a number of Chinese-language productions that are looking at co-production or shooting in Thailand. And I think that so much of it has to do with the cultural mood and temperament in China at the moment. It sounds like distribution there is really difficult. [Reality TV] is banned on streamers… you have very strong censorship rules that are being enforced about how China is portrayed, and how romance is portrayed. That obviously makes it difficult. I think there are also worries about the Chinese economy, too. Geopolitics like the cooling of U.S.-Chinese relations might be seen at the forefront, but it has more to do with internal Chinese things rather than geopolitics — at least from where I stand.

Moving on to Japan. Judging from the number of recent original productions, it seems there has been a real boom in production in the country. Is that fair to say?

Japan is a conundrum in and of itself and I think that there’s a lot of excitement about it and there’s also the reopening of the film incentive. But also it’s not inherently a production-friendly place. In Thailand, for example, everything goes hand in hand with the tourism industry and the service industry — production services are very aligned with that.

Japan is very rigid, they’re very set in their ways. But I think that there’s an awakening and also there’s the younger generation that’s more international. What’s happening now is more of a hybrid situation. For Hollywood movies to shoot [in Japan] they have to adapt to Japan, but Japan also has to adapt to the practices of the studios too.

In practical terms, what does that mean?

They’re just basic things in terms of paperwork, in terms of accounting, in terms of insurance, location agreements. The things studios and international corporations are accustomed to, so you have to do that.

In Japan, there’s a protocol for how you deal [with locations.] Talking with some Japanese production people and working with them on projects, it’s like, if we’re doing this we’re going to need more people in locations because you have to establish that rapport with the property owners or managers. Meanwhile, in New York, you go in, you do the deal, you pay the money, you close it out and you leave. In Japan, it’s more of a process and much more personality-dependent. It’s often easier not to do anything or not to go out of the norm just to keep everything the status quo.

Do you still feel like Japan is an underserved market?

I am so bullish on Japan, but I think it takes time. It takes patience, and I really also feel that it’s going to be growth from within. It’s not a place where you can import people and stuff and just go, okay, it’s gonna change and you’re gonna do it our way. The younger generation — less about age and more in a mentality that’s more international — they think their industry is missing this opportunity. And the government is now getting behind them with the incentive program.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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